Get Health: Reading Emerson in Pandemic Times

Stephen Rachman, Michigan State University

For many years I have been turning over in my mind one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s gnomic directives from The Conduct of Life:

If now . . . we should venture on laying down the first obvious rules of life, I will not here repeat the first rule of economy, already propounded once and again, that every man shall maintain himself,—but I will say, get health.  No labor, pains, temperance, poverty, nor exercise, that can gain it, must be grudged. (299)

When I initially considered this passage (back in the 1990s!), I was struck by how counterintuitive this formulation of the quest for health seemed. The roles of health and economy appeared to have been reversed. Was it not rather health, as a natural endowment, that should be maintained (as in the modern use of the term, HMO) or restored, and economy that should be obtained or gotten? Health seemed to be the precondition for obtaining anything, not the object of the quest.  But Emerson suggested that economy dictates the auto-maintenance of the self, whereas health must be acquired, must not be grudged, must be pursued with urgency in an aspirational way, perhaps asymptotically. For Emerson, health appears to reside in a place external to the self as an object of quest, as a precious condition that we seek to but do not fully—or even intrinsically—possess.  It is neither blessing, talent nor gift, but a potential. The getting of health does not describe health per se but the itinerary its pursuit might set, the effort to shape the arc over the course of a lifetime. This is for Emerson, in a sense, how one ought to conduct one’s life.

When the present, ongoing COVID pandemic hit, I returned to Emerson’s directive with fresh eyes. While I had immersed myself in the history of nineteenth-century America, it had been hard for me to recognize in what social or political contexts propounding such a rule for living had much urgency. Now it was clear. Perhaps, like the residents of Camus’ Oran in The Plague, I enjoyed the feeling that pandemic disease was a thing of the past, as they thought “that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible” (37). A world in which pandemic was a present concern and a recurrent phenomenon—that might indeed be a world in which health must be pursued and gotten while economies might be, as a rule, maintained. After all, we have witnessed just such a shift in priorities on national and international scales. In the face of a rampant virus, country after country has attempted to maintain economic stability while pursuing health. There was a simple recognition in this. Emerson had lived in a time of pandemics. In his lifetime, cholera was the recurrent pandemic that inspired such consideration. A journal entry from 1832 in which he was mulling over the news of the cholera outbreak at Philadelphia, he wrote, in what sounds like a dry run for the sentences he would pen nearly three decades later: “We are to act doubtless in our care of our own health as there were no other world.  We are to be punctilious in our care.  No caution is unseemly” (505-06).

In the Conduct of Life, the standing threat of pandemic disease is registered by fear and a horror of being devoured by his own kind. “For sickness is a cannibal,” he asserts “which eats up all the life and youth it can lay hold of, and absorbs its own sons and daughters” (299).  It is unclear to me who or what he has in mind as the Kronos-like figure consumes its own sons and daughters, but it does suggest to me an image somehow connected with a virus or virality, a life-form, similar in kind and yet somehow other, consuming other life-forms, perhaps even life itself from one generation to the next.

In “Fate” from The Conduct of Life, Emerson offers a broader perspective on living with and through pandemics, as he tries to place our fears within a nature-culture system.

The annual slaughter from typhus far exceeds that of war; but right drainage destroys typhus. The plague in the sea-service from scurvy is healed by lemon juice and other diets portable or procurable: the depopulation by cholera and small-pox is ended by drainage and vaccination; and every other pest is not less in the chain of cause and effect, and may be fought off. (42)

Viewing Emerson through a pandemic lens allows us to see that his “optimism” consists of a belief in resilience. It is not a question of ridding ourselves once and for all of the ills that beset us, but that within the ongoing struggle, we have the tools at hand to solve our problems, to confront and contend with our pandemics. However, we must be pro-active, in the parlance of our time, we must truly harvest an abundance of caution and no caution is unseemly in such moments. We must not be grudging in this pursuit. These days, I have been in the habit of signing off many letters with the phrase “Be Well.” Perhaps, I am slightly in error in this wish, and with Emerson, we might adopt a more active and resilient posture in the getting of wellness these days. Instead of “Be Well,” I should sign off, “Get Health.”

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert, Vintage International, 1991.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Conduct of Life. James R. Osgood & Co., 1871.

–. Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909.

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How to cite this post

MLA 8th Edition:

Stephen Rachman. “Get Health: Reading Emerson in Pandemic Times.” The Transparent Eyeball, Fourth Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, November 8, 2021, Accessed [date of access; ex. 5 Dec. 2021].

APA 7th Edition:

Rachman, S. (2021, November 8). Get Health: Reading Emerson in Pandemic Times. The Transparent Eyeball.

Chicago 17th Edition:

Rachman, Stephen. “Get Health: Reading Emerson in Pandemic Times,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, November 8, 2021